From Early Stage to Scale: The Power of Strategic Partnerships


Recently, we announced our new partnership with Google for Entrepreneurs and our commitment to building a presence in over 1,000 cities in the next three years. As we prepare to double our impact alongside an incredibly influential, global organization, we also consider where we’ve come from and the people who made our early journey possible. In partnering with Google for Entrepreneurs, we are also graduating from our first major supporter – The Kauffman Foundation.

The people at Kauffman believed in our vision from day one in 2009, even when our organization consisted mostly of ideas and goals. Walking in to pitch at Kauffman, we knew it would take a huge leap of faith on their part to listen to a three person team talk about creating entrepreneurs around the world. Luckily, they took a chance on us and our vision, and with their considerable financial support, we not only survived our early days, but surpassed our original goal of reaching 400+ cities in three years. Since then, our team has also grown from three to 47 employees with multiple offices around the world.

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Content from the first pitch deck that we presented to Kauffman.

“Our founder, Ewing Kauffman, challenged us to be daring, to take calculated risks, and to base our decisions in experience and research,” says Thom Ruhe, vice president of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation. “Having nurtured and funded Startup Weekend’s growth at such a critical time, getting it through the tough times to now being sustainable, is what the Kauffman Foundation is about. We are privileged to have the opportunity to identify organizations like Startup Weekend to support, continuing Mr. Kauffman’s legacy of entrepreneurial philanthropy.”

I remember the day I first pitched at Kauffman back in 2009; I was challenged with the question: “How will you be sustainable after our grant period?” This question is important and easy to ignore when you’re focused on securing funding or grant support. Remember, partner agreements tend to be finite, and companies should plan accordingly. So while we had just secured a grant, part of that agreement involved dictating what would happen after the grant ended. This may sound harsh, but in reality, it’s critical. I believe that every foundation should maintain some sort of three year investment strategy with new grantees. It challenges the organization to plan with a great level of discipline and focus on sustainable revenue models. In this light, hitting goals and growing are milestones, but every day you take a step closer to the milestone that marks the end of that type of partner relationship. Ultimately, this stipulation forced us to always be looking ahead and planning for sustainability.

One of the greatest challenges for a rapidly growing non profit is finding a balance between the increase in activity and the overhead costs associated with this growth. One of the more significant unexpected costs we didn’t plan for is talent. People are important, and they cost money – salaries, benefits, committed overhead for the team. As you grow, so does every single one of your expenses. Everything from office space, to benefits, to the incredible time investments to ensure everyone is communicating with one another and aligned in their day to day actions. As you achieve your original goals, you inevitably outgrow your original operating costs in a big way. This reality calls for expanded partnership that can accommodate the needs of a mid-size company as opposed to an early-stage startup. As we faced rapid growth, we realized that we were outgrowing our initial partnership, and we would have to find a commitment that could support the increase in our activity. Google for Entrepreneurs, an organization that has always supported our cause, stepped up to take on our next set of challenges with us.

The Kauffman Foundation has always been one of our biggest supporters, and they truly are a part of the UP family. Without support from the Kauffman Foundation, we would not have reached the scaling phase we find ourselves in today. We realize how rare it is for a company to get to this point. It takes a great amount of faith in an early stage company and team with audacious goals. We know some of those goals may have seemed unachievable to others, but Kauffman shared our vision and was there to compliment us where we had gaps – capital and relationships – in the early days.

We are fortunate to be able to look back on our roots and early days with gratitude, knowing that a new partnership was a necessary part of the long-term goals that Kauffman established with us. Like a savvy early-stage investor, they knew they were our working capital as we found product-market fit. Today, we are fortunate to have partners ready to fund our progress as we scale – and we remember our crucial partners who got us off the ground.


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